Winter Wrangling

Surly Stock Shenanigans

Early December, the company flew me out to the Flying B Ranch. I was a wrangler and winter caretaker for the backcountry facility, and it was time to go to work. There were thirty-five head of horses and mules that needed my attention and I genuinely enjoyed their company.

Flying Into the Backcountry in Winter

Taint was a horse that thought he was human but he looked like a tall lanky cow. He was funky splashes of chocolate and white, and big burrs formed clumps in his mane that looked like matted dreadlocks. His right front leg splayed out from the knee down like he was posing in a gay barroom and the matted mess in his forelock made his hair stand up like a bad toupee. Taint was smart but goofy. Almost a kindred spirit. He was laugh-out-loud lovable.

Working Surly Stock

He was typical of the cantankerous stock in the herd I worked with at the ranch that winter. The business manager left the misfits, morons, and malcontents for the caretakers to ride around the frozen Frank in the off-season. My task was to work with those animals and make them job worthy or identify them as culls. It was where we trained the less-than-compliant to do things that they did not like to do. “We” being Matt and me.

Matt and Taint at the Flying B Ranch
Matt & Taint at the Flying B

Matt Jauch was a 28-year-old former United States Marine who signed on with the ranch for the winter that year. The young man was my backcountry partner for the season and we made a pretty good team. He had been a backcountry packer and hunting guide for a neighboring outfitter for three years and was committed to the trade.  Matt was intelligent and tough, and liked to work with surly stock.

Unlike my partner, I did not like to wrangle undisciplined animals especially when they were bigger than me. Comfortable with horses and mules, I had no interest or enthusiasm for riding anything unwilling to carry me. I trained them with positive reinforcement, psychology, and persistence, but if teaching required leaving the saddle spontaneously, I objected in a vigorous and occasionally vulgar fashion. I didn’t like that part of my job, but my partner made it easier for me.

Feeding Time

Generally, Matt and I fed stock first thing in the morning. Not too early because it didn’t get light until after 8 o’clock. We chopped ice on the river so the stock could water and then we tended to chores or went our separate ways. The stock spent their winter days in the big pasture by the airstrip.

Breakfast at the Flying B

For convenience, Matt and I stashed some tack in the hangar by the airstrip for riding. After lunch each day, we grabbed a couple halters off the wall of the runway shed and walked out to work the stock.

Wrangling Shifty Shorty

Out in the pasture, I slid up next to Shorty – which, by the way, was a terrible name for the horse. There was nothing short about Shorty. He was a half-draft sorrel with socks on every leg and a handsome white blaze. He knew when I tied him to the fence by the airfield that something was about to happen. The big horse let me grain him and brush him, and he didn’t give me any trouble when I saddled up… but there was something about the way he looked at me that gave me pause.

Pat and Shorty at the Flying B Ranch
Shorty Giving Me ‘the Eye’

Shorty was gigantic; his neck was double-sized and his hooves were like pie plates. I ran my hands up his neck to the back of his ears. I went back-and-forth and used my shoulder to scratch him under his chin.

“We’ve got work to do, Shorty,” I informed as I ran my hand along his backbone looking for any signs of sensitivity. “I don’t want to do this anymore than you do, but our boss wants it done. It’s happening tomorrow and we need to get ready.”

Getting Personal

I kept my hand on his croup as I walked around his backside, touching his hips with my body so he knew where I was all the time. Then I stroked his side and his neck up under his mane. With my head close to his, we smelled each other and I exhaled like a horse, and then I groomed around his face. Starting low around the jaw, I licked the tip of my finger and used it to rub on his face, removing hay or mud or nothing at all. Almost like a monkey grooming a mate, I moved up his cheek as I repeated this rubbing or scratching or picking. Before long, Shorty let me scrape the ‘eye boogies’ off his face, which meant he was totally relaxed.

Ready for Backcountry Adventure

I climbed up on his broad barrel back and sounded his cue to move with the clicking of my tongue. He came right along. We walked and whoa’d and reviewed other cues. Shorty seemed ready to work.

Goofy Taint

Matt had Taint in a halter tied to a fence post and was wrangling Cookie the mule. Taint turned to look at me and Shorty when we got close. Matt had a big smile across his black-bearded lumberjack face.

“Goofy Taint. Just look at this weirdo.”

Matt turned to look towards Taint and cocked his head to one side. As if mirroring his human partner, Taint tilted his big cow head and the matted hair on his forehead stuck out like the bill of a baseball cap. Matt laughed out loud. He loved Taint; we both did. We did from the first time we watched him from the kitchen window of the ranch. He walked like a Lipizzaner stallion, but looked like a bus stop hobo.

Half Horse – Half Hobo

“Goofy Taint,” I concurred. “How’s he going to do on this trip?”

“I don’t know,” Matt said after he looked him over a second. “He was a little evasive just now because he knows what’s up. I rode him yesterday and he was manageable. He could turn out to be a good horse; I think he just needs work. I’m not too worried.”

As Matt spoke, Taint stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Not behind him, like most stock, but as close to beside him as he could be without knocking Matt down. He sometimes stepped on Matt’s heels when they walked because he tried to keep his head next to his buddy. It was easy to see that the two of them had bonded. Matt faced me with the halter ropes in his hands, Cookie behind him and Taint’s head on his right shoulder. Cheek-to-cheek… Matt and Goofy Taint.

X Factor

“I don’t know what to expect from Shorty. A little too easy so far.”

“Well, it’s not like they’re raw. They’ve been broke. He might be just fine.”

“Not sure I’m buying into that. Why is he here? Does this big conehead scrape hunters off his back? Is he spooked by rocks or monsters on the trail? Does he not like to lead a string?”

I looked at Shorty and he looked at me. I didn’t see any answers. Sooner or later, I’d learn about that crazy look he gave me.

“You ready?” Matt asked.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied with a shake of my head.

The Flying B Resort Ranch
The Flying B from Across the River

We’d ride up the Brush Creek drainage behind the remote ranch to break down a hunting camp in the morning. There was adventure on the horizon.

(Excerpts from “River Hippies & Mountain Men”)

Sign up to receive Daily Adventures
in your Inbox!

** Don’t worry; I don’t spam…
..don’t even know HOW to sell your data & would never trade your trust for money. Subscribe. Enjoy & tell your friends.

Every Friday for the weekend & every Monday for the week ahead.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 4.9 / 5. Vote count: 13

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.


  1. Your experiences have become great memories and stories to share with us. I love horses – their smell, their characters and their strength. I’ll be working with them this upcoming summer on the family farm.

    • You are a lucky man. I was afraid of them when I was young. Later in life, they helped me heal. I miss them… and hope to have some in the future

  2. It seems that working with horses was not only a challenge, but also a pleasure. It’s nice to read such stories.

Comments are appreciated & I act on your feedback.